The Houston Rockets James Harden and Dwight Howard era is coming to a close.
Four years ago, the Kevin McHale led Houston Rockets finished 9th in the Western Conference with a record of 34-32 behind the efforts of the team’s leading scorer Kevin Martin.
After career ending injuries to former Rockets superstars Tracy McGrady and Yao Ming, the Rockets teetered on the edge of the playoffs for a few years as a team that wasn’t quite good enough to land a top eight spot in the West, but not bad enough to end up with a high lottery pick.
Having struggled to make the postseason for a couple of years, October of 2012 brought the Rockets a pleasant surprise. Houston struck a deal with the Oklahoma City Thunder to acquire former 6th man of the year James Harden. In his first year with the team, Harden put a stop to the Rockets’ playoff drought.
Dwight on James Harden: "I have no hate in my heart for this man…I'm telling you, we can win a championship." https://t.co/dQCIge8WcM
— Sam Amick (@sam_amick) March 22, 2016
A year later in free agency, superstar center Dwight Howard decided to leave L.A. in order to play alongside Harden in Houston. With the addition of Howard, Houston once again made the playoffs, but experienced a disappointing first round exit.
In Harden and Howard’s second season together, things improved. The Rockets made the playoffs for the third year in a row, this time advancing all the way to the Western Conference finals. Despite losing to the Golden State Warriors, Houston seemed poised to take a step further as a legitimate championship contender in their next season together with Harden and Howard at the core.
Mandatory Credit: Thomas B. Shea-USA TODAY Sports
Things didn’t work out. Struggling to start the 2015-2016 regular season, the Rockets panicked, fired their head coach, and have been scrambling to find stability ever since.
Most people, including myself, believed that the Rockets would eventually get back on track considering their roster. For some reason, it just hasn’t happenned.
With the Rockets still trying to smooth things out, and with Howard approaching the end of his contract, it is likely that Harden and Howard are seeing their final days together.
It goes without saying that James Harden is the Rockets’ prized possession. He is one of the league’s top talents, averaging 28.5 points (2nd), 7.4 assists (7th), and 6.5 rebounds– flirting with a triple-double almost every night.
Harden came to the Rockets approaching the prime of his career. If Harden should choose to leave Houston in the future, it is likely that he will have spent his best years in a Rockets uniform.
Howard, on the other hand, is a different story. Howard’s best years came as a member of the Orlando Magic, leading the team to a NBA finals appearance. He came to the Rockets by way of Los Angeles after a back injury that he has seemingly been unable to completely recover from.
While Howard has managed to play good basketball for the Rockets– especially in the playoffs– he has never lived up to his Orlando Magic days.
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Howard currently averages 14 points and 12 rebounds. Though the Rockets appreciate his production, it isn’t a stretch to assume that the Rockets would be able to find similar numbers elsewhere, and that Howard isn’t worth the max contract he will be seeking during the offseason.
Even if the Rockets were willing to pay Howard max money, it is doubtful that Howard would want to return to Houston. Playing second fiddle to Harden, Howard has seen his touches in the post drop dramatically. That being the case, there have been countless rumors all season that Howard is displeased with his role on the team.
The fact is, Howard’s game is on the decline. It’s not the reason the Rockets have been unable to win this season, but it hasn’t helped their situation either. Howard just isn’t much of a difference maker. Missing half of last season due to injury, the Rockets’ record without Howard was virtually the same as it was with him.
Furthermore, a disgruntled Howard is bad for team chemistry.
Howard is still a good player, and the Rockets would like to see him return. The question is whether or not Howard sees himself as a Rocket next season, and whether he’s willing to accept that he’s not the player he once was. If he’s unable to do those two things, Harden and Howard’s time together will come to a close.
As disappointing as this season has been, the Rockets have to make a change during the offseason. Whether that be a new coach, a new supporting cast behind Harden–or both– Rockets basketball will enter a new era come next season.
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